The fight for Pell coalitions: The role of WU/FUSED, the Board of Trustees, the administration, and student leaders in improving WashU’s socioeconomic diversity

| Managing Sports Editor

Student members of Washington University for Socioeconomic Diversity disrupted the Wrightonpalooza — Chancellor Wrighton’s going-away party — with a rally to raise awareness for socioeconomic diversity. (Grace Bruton | Student Life)

This article is part of “The Fight for Pell: The History of Socioeconomic Diversity at WashU,” a Student Life series that documents the long struggle for increased awareness and support for Pell-eligible students. Read the letter from the author here

“WU/FUSED deserves the majority of the credit, along with a few former key administrators, for getting the momentum [for socioeconomic diversity] going,” Scotty Jacobs, WashU alumni and former Student Representative to the Board of Trustees, said. 

While most people will remember the WashU Pell Grant problem by the attention it received from the New York Times and other organizations, change has always been pursued by grassroots organizations and protests. Beginning with members of the Board of Trustees, members of the University’s administration, and other student leaders, socioeconomic diversity at WashU was a team effort led by Washington University for Undergraduate Socioeconomic Diversity (WU/FUSED) by holding rallies, town halls, and protests on campus.

Most famously, WU/FUSED rallied the second Presidential Debate between Hillary Clinton and former President Donald Trump, carrying an eight-foot-tall black ball and chain around campus to raise awareness of the burden of student debt on college students and the economy.

“We created this big ball of debt,” said Chase. “But that became a stock image on the Associated Press that would be used a lot all over the place. It was like an image of this massive ball of debt that we had made, and we would lug it around campus on a chain, as if that is what’s holding people back and making it harder to move forward.”

(Jillian McCarten | Student Life)

Recently, the University announced that it will adopt a “no loan” policy for all undergraduates starting in the fall of 2024. The policy promises to eliminate federal loans from financial aid packages, allowing students to graduate without debt.

That was the other big issue and mission of WU/FUSED. Embedded in the issue of socioeconomic diversity was the fact that a lot of people often had to take out loans to afford WashU, and due to interest, money would add up. 

“We’ve talked to people who are in their 50s and 60s and still have their student-loan debt, so it’s something that is a pressing issue and should be addressed by both [of] the candidates, and we hope to see their take on it in the coming weeks,” said Rachel Hellman, who tended to the installation before the debate taking place.

In 2019, WU/FUSED protested “Wrightonpalooza”, an event that celebrated Chancellor Wrighton’s retirement after 24 years of service to WashU. That celebration took the form of a festival. They also protested several Tuition Forums between 2015 and 2020. 

(Grace Bruton | Student Life)

But beyond  WU/FUSED activism on campus, holding rallies, town halls, and protests, the student representatives to the Board of Trustees continued to bring the issue of socioeconomic diversity to the higher-ups.

“We sort of started the conversation to say, you know, ‘What do you think about this as board members?’” Jacobs said. “We started to lay out the roadmap of what it would take to make something like building what is now the Taylor Family office.”

Knowing that they had the ears and the support of the Board, Jacobs and his colleague Shyam Akula would begin their broader pitch of socioeconomic diversity. Their projects mainly focused on building the infrastructure needed to support low-income students on campus. Their work would eventually help the creation of the Office of Student Success, which eventually became the Taylor Family Center for Student Success.

“Shyam and I take no credit for the [roadmap],” Jacobs continued. “We were in the right place at the right time to take a lot of the groundwork that WU/FUSED laid, [with former Associate Dean] Harvey Fields in place, and certain other administrators [put it all together] in a package that the Board [could] get excited about.”

Coalition-building in the name of socio-economic diversity on campus would extend beyond the Student’s Reps to the Board of Trustees, to other student leaders on campus. Specifically, in the wake of Chancellor Andrew Martin’s 2019 announcement of a need-blind admissions goal, WU/FUSED, the Student Union Senate, and the Roosevelt Network collaborated to develop a need-blind report that was presented to Chancellor Martin in late 2019. 

“So, writing the actual report was very collaborative. We had a group chat where we all drafted different sections of the report,” said Sophie Scott, former Speaker of the Student Union Senate. “We had a couple of meetings to go over everything and make sure it all seemed cohesive. And then WU/FUSED ended up presenting it to Chancellor Martin in a meeting that they had already scheduled with him. So the process was pretty smooth, aside from a couple of hiccups.”

The hiccups regarded concerns WU/FUSED and the Roosevelt Network had about StudLife covering the collaboration to write the report. According to Scott, the hesitation around the StudLife article concerned WU/FUSED and Roosevelt since they both thought that the SU Senate, an undergraduate student-government body, was only involved in the report to look after its image. 

“At the time, I had instituted this structure in the Senate where the different committees would write reports, and then we would present the reports at general-body meetings to get feedback from the entire Senate body,” said Scott. “When we assembled, we presented the need-blind report initially before it was completely finalized. So then, of course, StudLife wanted to write a story on it. And they wanted to interview me. When I brought that to the group, the group being WU/FUSED and [the] Roosevelt Network, other people were very hesitant about doing a StudLife article.”

Despite the strain, the report still ended up being written, and StudLife covered it. Overall, it was an 18-page report detailing the issue of need-blind admissions and how peer institutions achieved it. But beyond that information, the most important aspect of the report included recommendations for the school to take. These recommendations ranged from the creation of a Student Need-blind Task Force to a need-blind working group that had students at the center.

“[WU/FUSED and the Roosevelt Network] didn’t want an article published before the meeting with Martin because they didn’t want it to seem like we were trying to blindside Martin, and they thought that we would have a better chance of being effective with the policy changes we wanted if it didn’t seem like we were trying to pull a fast one on Martin. But that was a big source of tension,” Scott explained. “Some members believed that SU was only involved because they wanted publicity, rather than a common motive for change.

Editor’s Note: This article was revised on 10/05/2023 to adequately reflect sensitive material. 

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